A UKIP MEP is facing an anxious wait while the European Parliament decides whether to grant her immunity from being sued by Rotherham’s three MPs over “extremely grave” allegations she made in a speech.
Jane Collins, who represents Yorkshire and North Lincolnshire, made claims at her party’s conference — in the run up to last year's general election — that the area’s three Labour MPs knew about child exploitation in the town and did not intervene.
Sir Kevin Barron, John Healey and Sarah Champion, whose constituencies all cover Rotherham, launched libel proceedings against her and were due to have the level of their damages decided by a judge at London’s High Court this week.
But the case has now been halted — following receipt of a letter from the EU Parliament to say it is considering Ms Collins’ request for immunity, which was described by the MPs as an "absurd irony".
The protection works in a similar way to the privilege enjoyed by Westminster politicians, although it may be extended to cover comments made outside the EU Parliament chamber.
Ms Collins hopes that, if she is granted immunity, she cannot be sued over the comments she made.
The parliament said it will consider the matter as soon as possible, and the court heard a decision could be made as early as next week.
During yesterday’s hearing, Mr Gavin Millar QC, for the three MPs, told the court Ms Collins’ request for immunity was an attempt to “assert the primacy of this piece of EU law over the law and procedure in the court of England and Wales”.
Mr Justice Warby said all other issues left to be decided in the case, including Ms Collins' bid to withdraw an earlier offer to settle the case, will have to be “stayed” until the EU Parliament gives its opinion.
He told the court: “I will make an express request to the parliament to act expeditiously.”
The judge also ordered Ms Collins to pay £15,000 towards the legal costs incurred by the three MPs as a result of the delay.
Yesterday, he refused to delay the hearing until he received formal notification from the EU Parliament that it was considering the MEP's request.
Ms Collins is now representing herself in the High Court case, and told the court yesterday she had to dispense with her legal representatives after spending £80,000.
Lawyers for the trio said they will be monitoring the situation closely to avoid further delays.
Mr Millar told the court: “We do not want to be left in a state of ignorance about the progress in this matter, in the way we have in the past.
“We do not want anything done behind our back from now on in relation to these proceedings.”
He added: “This is the second time I have been here with my three clients — who are all members of the British parliament — to seek finality in this litigation.
“They have a right to finality in their litigation and a conclusion of the proceedings within a reasonable time.”
Ms Collins, who was Ukip’s candidate for the seat of Rotherham — Ms Champion's constituency —in the 2012 by-election and at last year’s general election, made the speech at her party's 2014 conference in Doncaster.
The central theme of the speech was the child exploitation scandal which had rocked Rotherham following the report of Prof Alexis Jay.
That report detailed how, over a 16-year period, an estimated 1,400 children were raped, beaten, plied with alcohol and drugs and threatened with violence by men of Pakistani origin.
Following a hearing on the “meaning” of the words in Ms Collins's speech, in April last year, Mr Justice Warby found she had stated that the three MPs “knew of the abuse and chose not to intervene” as though it was a fact.
He also found other assertions made by her, including that the trio “acted in this way for motives of political correctness, political cowardice, or political selfishness”, were expressions of opinion.
A case being brought by the three Labour MPs against Caven Vines, the former Ukip group leader on Rotherham Council, over similar allegations he made during a TV interview, is due to be heard tomorrow.
Ms Collins said after the hearing: “EU law has been supreme to UK law since the Factortame case of 1988 and this is something the Labour Party by supporting the remain campaign wish to continue.
“It seems bizarre they are so keen for UK law to be supreme when it suits them but not when it suits the country.”
Sir Kevin, Mr Healey and Ms Champion said: “It is 18 months since we challenged the deeply damaging and totally baseless allegations Jane Collins made in a speech to the UKIP national conference.
“At every stage since then she's tried to duck and delay the process of justice.
“The judge today was set to decide on the damages she must pay but instead the court was confronted by the absurd irony of a UKIP MEP claiming EU sovereignty and immunity as an MEP from action in the British courts.
“This may be justice delayed but it will not be justice denied.
“We are totally determined to hold her to account for the defamatory allegations she made against us.”